—-St. Joseph High School, Westchester, basketball gym. Feb. 2013 (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

“Hoop Dreams”

St. Joes was sacred ground when it came to basketball in Illinois

The phrase “Hoop Dreams” became synonymous with high school basketball after the hit 1994 Kartemquin Films‘ documentary that followed around two Chicago high school athletes, Arthur Agee and William Gates, as they played basketball for St. Joseph and coach Gene Pingatore.

It’s hard to talk about St. Joes’ basketball program without mentioning head coach Gene Pingatore, Feb. 15, 2013 (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Pingatore’s coaching career and the Chargers’ basketball program were born together. He played for Providence-St. Mel High School on their 1954 Catholic & City championship team, before going to Loyola Marymount to play basketball there from 1954-58. Returning to Chicago after college he was hired at the newly formed St. Joseph High School in Westchester as the freshman coach and assistant varsity coach. He became the second varsity head coach at the school starting with the 1969-70 season.

Just a decade old, the state didn’t yet know what an imprint this school and coach would have as they finished that season 3-13. By the time Pingatore passed away in 2019 he was the only varsity head coach ever in the state to record 1,000 wins (he finished with 1,035) and coached the school to six final fours, including two state titles in 1999 & 2015.

St. Joes dominated the East Suburban Catholic Conference during its tenure. The gym probably didn’t have enough wall space for all the banners that could have been hung there. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Beyond Pingatore, the team might have one of the state’s most well know runner-ups in history, as people still talk about the 1977-78 team starring future Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas, that went 31-2 losing only its second game that year to Lockport in the AA final.

The Gym

The gym was a bit of dungeon, not in the way that they are dirty and cramped, but the lighting there made the place seem dark. Not to mention it was a nightmare for photographers and videographers. The gym, built in the 1960s was a very common design at the time, semi-arched wood beams ran along the back of the bleachers along the sidelines and slanted upwards to form a cathedral like ceiling.

Unlike many gyms with a similar design (see Bremen), St. Joseph did not paint their ceiling white to increase the effect of bouncing light. That light often created an orange cast to the gym unless you calibrated your camera to it. The one added bonus from a photography stand point is, jump shots & layups around the basket often had a NBA feel to them as the ceiling was almost completely blacked out in photos.

The original dark wood ceiling at St. Joseph High School really made jump shots & 3-pointers stick out in contrast.( photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

It’s unclear if the scoreboard in the gym was original to the 1960s, but they were still using a rope-and-pulley system, where the letters and numbers changed individually each game to list the team rosters.

Even in 2013 the scoreboard at St. Joseph’s had the old plaques to the right & left of it where each team had its roster displayed after lowering & raising via a rope & pulley system. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)
Final seconds of Loyola Academy at St. Joseph H.S., Feb. 15, 2013

In April of 2021 St. Jospeh’s administration made the announcement that 2021 would be its final year of operations. Because of this the Chargers played their last home game and last basketball game ever against St. Ignatius on March 12th, 2021. With no fanfare, the game was a 58-35 loss and with a state playoff canceled due to Covid, the once dominant Chargers faded silently into history.

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